The First Amendment of the Internet – the governing principle of net neutrality, which prevents telecommunications corporations from rigging the web so it is easier to visit sites that pay for preferential treatment – took a blow from the House of Representatives Thursday.
Bowing to an intense lobbying campaign that spent tens of millions of dollars – and held out the promise of hefty campaign contributions for those members who did the bidding of interested firms – the House voted 321 to 101 for the disingenuously-named Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE). That bill, which does not include meaningful network-neutrality protections creates an opening that powerful telephone and cable companies hope to exploit by expanding their reach while doing away with requirements that they maintain a level playing field for access to Internet sites.
"Special interest advocates from telephone and cable companies have flooded the Congress with misinformation delivered by an army of lobbyists to undermine decades-long federal practice of prohibiting network owners from discriminating against competitors to shut out competition. Unless the Senate steps in, (Thursday's) vote marks the beginning of the end of the Internet as an engine of new competition, entrepreneurship and innovation." says Jeannine Kenney, a senior policy analyst for Consumers Union.
In case there was any question that Kenney's assessment was accurate, the House voted 269-152 against an amendment, offered by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, which would have codified net neutrality regulations into federal law. The Markey amendment would have prevented broadband providers from rigging their services to create two-tier access to the Internet – with an "information superhighway" for sites that pay fees for preferential treatment and a dirt road for sites that cannot pay the toll.
After explicitly rejecting the Markey amendment's language, which would have barred telephone and cable companies from taking steps "to block, impair, degrade, discriminate against, or interfere with the ability of any person to use a broadband connection to access…services over the Internet," the House quickly took up the COPE legislation.
The bill drew overwhelming support from Republican members of the House, with the GOP caucus voting 215-8 in favor of it. But Democrats also favored the proposal, albeit by a narrower vote of 106 to 92. The House's sole independent member, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, a champion of internet freedom who is seeking his state's open Senate seat this fall, voted against the measure.
Joining Sanders in voting against the legislation were most members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including its co-chairs, California Representatives Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, as well as genuine conservatives who have joined the fight to defend free speech and open discourse on the internet, including House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and Intelligence Committee chair Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan.
The left-meets-right voting in the House reflected the coalition that has formed to defend net neutrality, which includes such unlikely political bedfellows as the Christian Coalition of America, MoveOn.org, National Religious Broadcasters, the Service Employees International Union, the American Library Association, the American Association of Retired People, the American Civil Liberties Union and all of the nation's major consumer groups.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, opposed COPE, while House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, were enthusiastically supported it.
Among the Democrats who followed the lead of Hastert and Boehner – as opposed to that of Pelosi – were House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Maryland Representative Ben Cardin, who is running for that state's open Senate seat in a September Democratic-primary contest with former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Illinois Democrat Melissa Bean, who frequently splits with her party on issues of interest to corporate donors, voted with the Republican leadership, as did corporate-friendly "New Democrats" such as Alabama's Artur Davis, Washington's Adam Smith and Wisconsin's Ron Kind – all co-chairs of the Democratic Leadership Council-tied House New Democrat Coalition.
The fight over net neutrality now moves to the Senate, where Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan have introduced legislation to codify the net neutrality principles of equal and unfettered access to Internet content into federal law.
Mark Cooper, the director of research for the Consumers Federation of America, thinks net neutrality will find more friends in the Senate, at least in part because the "Save the Internet" coalition that has grown to include more than 700 groups, 5,000 bloggers and 800,000 individuals is rapidly expanding.
"This coalition will continue to grow, millions of Americans will add their voices, and Congress will not escape the roar of public opinion until Congress passes enforceable net neutrality," says Cooper.
Cooper's correct to be more hopeful about the Senate than the House. But the House vote points up the need to get Democrats united on this issue. There's little question that a united Democratic caucus could combine with principled Republicans in the Senate to defend net neutrality. But if so-called "New Democrats" in the Senate side with the telephone and cable lobbies, the information superhighway will become a toll road.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
© 2006 The Nation